Cheese Sandwiches in Hand, School Cafeteria Workers Demand $15 an Hour

 A cafeteria worker serves lunch to students.



by Steve Strunsky

Cheese sandwiches in hand, school food services workers from several Essex County districts marched to the office of the state-appointed Essex County superintendent of schools to make their case for better pay.

The sandwiches consisted of two slices of bread and a single slice of American cheese, which is what the workers said they are told to give students who have no money for whatever regular school lunch is being served that day.

Employees of school food service contractors are one of the most recent groups of low-wage workers to seek raises to $15 an hour. The point of the sandwiches, according to the union official who led the workers up to the superintendent's office, was to underscore the meager funding allocated for school lunch programs, which in turn limits the wages for food and workers' wages. Typically, union officials said, the cafeteria workers make $9 to $14 an hour. 

Essex Superintendent Joseph Zarra was not in his office at the time, so one of the workers delivered the the message to his assistant.

"This cheese sandwich is not a nutritious meal," said the worker, Leslie Williams, 58, who lives and works in Orange. "And that's the way this food service works. We can't even afford to buy our family a cheese sandwich."

The union official, SEIU Local 32BJ Vice President Kevin Brown, said negotiations are ongoing for a master contract with a food service company, Chartwells Higher Education Food Services of Port Chester, N.Y., The company supplies school lunches and labor for the Orange, Hackensack, North Brunswick, South Brunswick, and Woodbridge districts.

The union has also campaigned for a $15-an-hour wage for cabin cleaners, baggage handlers and security guards at Newark Liberty International Airport. Like cafeteria workers who used to be employed directly by their school districts, many low-paid airport workers now work for contractors following a wave of outsourcing by the airline industry. 

Last week, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, decided not to impose a $15-an-hour minimum wage requirement on firms doing business at the airport. The agency had already imposed a minimum of $10.10 an hour for airport workers, above the state minimum wage of $8.38. 

Last month, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a Democratic bill that would have gradually raised the state's hourly minimum to $15. 

Brown said the five districts are far from alone in outsourcing food services, and that 70 percent of New Jersey's 10,000 K-12 food service workers are employed by private contractors, a privatization trend that dates back decades that continues as districts look to save money in times of stagnant or declining state aid. 

Chartwells did not return a request for comment on Tuesday. Last month, a regional vice president of the company, Gene Sanchez, told NJ Advance Media that Chartwells had reached agreements with the SEIU for 16 years, and remained committed to "a collaborative and productive process" during the current round of negotiations. 

"The contractors aren't paid enough by the school districts to pay their workers, thanks to the lack of school funding," Brown said.

Zarra, who works for the state Department of Education, did not respond to a message left at his office on Tuesday. A spokesman for the department declined to comment on the local contract talks. 

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